Column: The President Chose the Coward’s Way Out

Voltaire is the nom de plume of Philip Nobile, author of Catholic Nonsense and Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books, and editor of Judgement at the Smithsonian.

President Bush's hair-splitting decision on stem cell research requires amplification of my previous remarks. In "Why God Favors Stem Cell Research," I noted the Grand Designer's haphazard treatment of blastocysts (i.e., a huge percentage of them are washed away in cosmic oblivion before attaching to the womb) and pointed out the Vatican's cluelessness regarding their eternal fate (i.e., no salvation without baptism of some sort).

In light of this metaphysical and theological evidence, it made no sense to a reasonable man like me to worry about experimentation. If God has treated his concepti so cavalierly and if the Church has abandoned them after death, how important could they be? Controlling for sentimentalism, blastocysts are pretty cheap in the scheme of evolution. End of story.

The irony rolled on last week when the most prolific political executioner of 20th century America gave a lecture on the value of life. Pardon moi if Carla Faye Tucker came to mind when President Bush declared:"I also believe that human life is a sacred gift from our creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life and believe, as your president, I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world."

The President fairly presented the position in favor of stem cell research--e.g., frozen blastocysts are neither embryos, nor individuals but merely clusters of cells destined to be destroyed anyway. However, his bias showed in his uncritical embrace of non-biological rebuttals: e.g.,"Others will argue that there's no such thing as an excess of life. And the fact that a living being is going to die does not justify experimenting on it or exploiting it as a natural resource."

Oh really? As Darwin observed, the essence of biology is excess."A struggle for existence inevitably flows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase," he wrote in The Origin of the Species."There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increased at so a high a rate, that, if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair ... heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old, in every generation or at recurrent intervals."

Of course, the"going to die" fact does not vindicate human experimentation. All living beings die. What this gambit leaves out is that frozen blastocysts are never going to be born. They are stuck in the on-deck circle of life with no chance of getting to the plate. Squeezed by the Pope and other Talibans who prefer Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and paralysis to studying the curative potential of permanently orphaned fertilized eggs, the President chose the coward's way out. Testing the existing cell lines of already destroyed ova, si! But not one federal dime for work on living ones!

Despite the dead egg loophole and appearance of an even hand, the President is firmly on the side of the Talibans. If none of the current stem cell lines bear fruit, he is stuck with his prayerful ban on future federal funding.

The President's new and misnamed Council on Bioethics will undoubtedly provide him with cover. I say misnamed because its chairman, Leon Richmond Kass, seems more moralist than ethicist. Check the language in his quote to the New York Times (August 10):"And with the help of the council, I hope to enable the American people and the president to understand the moral significane of the issues before us, and to make it more likely that we will decide wisely and well." Dr. Kass followed up in similar terms on PBS's"Newshour."

You do not have to be a philosophe to cringe at mixing morality and biology. Look at the mess Christianity has made of masturbation, homosexuality, and group sex. (Concerning the latter, as you may know, I am reputed to have said,"Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.")

I wrote about the useless speculations of religion regarding the origin of life in my entry on the soul in The Philosophical Disctionary. The more things change, the more they remain the same. See if you agree:

Thus the soul was generally taken for the origin and the cause of life, for life itself. … There is the eternal object of the disputes of mankind; I say eternal object; for not having any first notion from which we can descend in this examination, we can only rest forever in a labyrinth of doubt and feeble conjecture. We have not the smallest step where we may place a foot in order to reach the most superficial knowledge of what makes us live and of what makes us think. How should we have? We should have had to see life and thought enter a body. … We dare question whether the soul is" Spirit" or" matter" ; if it is created before us, if it issues from nonexistence at our birth, if after animating us for one day on earth, it lives after us into eternity. These questions appear sublime; what are they? Questions of blind men saying to other blind men-" What is light?"

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Yomin Postelnik - 8/13/2001

President Bush has faced one of the hardest decisions a leader has yet to face. Embryonic stem cell research seems promising and may well lead to the cures of numerous dreaded diseases. At the same time this research involves the use of and destruction of human embryos, potential human life.
The President could not have explained it better himself when in a speech before the nation he quoted the thoughts of one of the researchers he had spoken with on this issue. This researcher had explained that all human life, indeed all of us begin our physical existence as the very embryos this type research destroys.
The issue is a complicated one on many levels. Science holds out hope that this research will lead to cures for some people’s worst nightmares. This in itself is good reason to explore all avenues available. At the same time we must not forget that human life is precious. Foetuses should not and must not be destroyed to further the goals of those fully developed and grown up. No one would support murder for the purpose of organ transplant and herein lies the greatest problem with this new research.
An embryo is the beginning of a human life. It was the first stage of the existence of each and every one of us. It is not a laboratory rat and should never be treated as such. One can expect the media to portray opposition to this research as cruel and as preventing important cures from being found. In actuality opposition to such research has its roots in the very essence of compassion, compassion for human life.
Another factor one must consider before wholeheartedly embracing such research is the fact that science held out the same exact hopes when foetal research first became available. Such research led nowhere.
Because of the delicate nature of the experiments one must also look for other alternatives. If research using the umbilical cord or animals would lead to the same results then these methods should be explored first, before using potential human beings and removing a potential for life. Indeed such research seems promising as well and does not involve any catastrophe. It is well worth noting that many such foetuses are implanted and grow to be full human beings. Could we be destroying the researcher who would discover the very cure we seek in the process of examining all our options?
Opposition to the President’s decision, namely to publicly fund research involving use of already destroyed embryos, will undoubtedly come from both sides. Some are against use of any embryo, any potential human, for the sake of scientific research. We do not kill one human to save another and many view an embryo as a life unto itself. Others will say the President’s decision did not go far enough. An embryo is not even a growing foetus and as such is not deserving of consideration when such consideration stands in the way of even a possible cure.
To those who would argue the latter I have already given many ideas over which to ponder. Is human life, or even potential human life worth destroying for the purpose of advancing our goals? Will our goals actually be advanced through such research? To those whose opposition to the President’s decision stems from moral and ethical considerations I must concede that their position is understandable. Certainly if one views an embryo as an actual human life one cannot at the same time wish to benefit from its murder.
For what it’s worth I do support the decision of the President. Like most I had expected either a clear approval or rejection of federal funding. I found the decision that was made to be a wise one. At the root of my own reasoning is the fact that I do not see an embryo as being a full human life in every respect. I do see it as a potential life and as the living existence of a potential human being. To a certain degree the same can be said of an actual foetus, which is one reason I’m not opposed to abortion when the baby is a danger to the mother’s life. This being the case I do believe that once an embryo has tragically been destroyed it may still be used for the betterment of mankind. I recognize this is a slippery slope and hope it will be severely contained. At the same time I am fully opposed to the destruction of further embryos for this purpose. Refreshingly support has already come from Mary Tyler Moore, herself a diabetes sufferer and a long time campaigner for a cure. In a live interview with Larry King she praised President Bush’s decision as having been well thought out.
While still on the subject it is worth noting that had this decision come up a year ago I am certain that the previous administration would have walked wantonly into this without any regard whatsoever to the implications, to the alternatives or to the morality of doing so. This President deserves our highest respect for the thought, the care and the leadership he has given in wisely making this decision.
President Bush stated that he had sincerely prayed before making this decision. I have always firmly held as a strong tenant of my faith that G-d listens to all sincere prays. With this decision G-d has shown this to be true.

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